Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Schools Lack Public Support

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Schools Lack Public Support

Article excerpt

It's hard to know whether David Mathews has come up with a penetrating insight or just another fetching truism. There's no disputing the truth of what he says in his new booklet: The trouble with public schools lies more with the public than with the schools.

No, that's not true. There's lots of disputing that truth. Almost every critique of public education (and every proposal for improvement) disputes it, focusing on what the schools do, or fail to do. The schools are dreadful because teachers are ill-trained or afraid to exert discipline, or because the schools are cheerless, underfunded and unsafe.

Seldom does anyone say what Mathews, president of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, says with such conviction: The trouble with the public schools is that they no longer have a "public" that considers them their schools.

It's almost impossible not to nod in agreement as you thumb through "Is There a Public for Public Schools?" Of course, the schools (at least in those places where everybody knows they are awful) have lost their public support - not just in money but in personal commitment. Of course, public schools (especially in the cities) are becoming the educational counterparts of public hospitals: supported by taxpayers who will use them only as a last desperate resort. Of course, educators find it hard to improve schools that have lost the support of the communities they serve.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of the loss of community commitment that Mathews talks about is in the public schools of Washington, D.C. It has become routine (for blacks especially) to blame the problems of big-city schools on white flight. It's not that black children need white classmates, we insist, but the abandonment by whites means the loss of public support - the loss of money - to do what needs to be done.

The problem, we frequently insist, is racism. And sure enough, in most of America, it is possible to point to poor-performing, mostly black schools surrounded by higher-performing, better-funded white ones. If only "they" hadn't left, with their money and their political clout, why inner-city schools would be doing just fine.

But look at Washington. …

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